Winter of Discontent: A Tale Of Two Protests

John Lucas

Are the public warming to tents and placards? Image © John Lucas

There are now two weeks until the UK experiences its biggest public-sector strikes in a generation. It is difficult to know how the public will greet them, and whether the inevitable protest marches will pass without incident. But, working as a freelance photographer, I’ve had a chance to witness the development of the anti-cuts protest movement over the last year and my experiences during two protests, almost 8 months apart, suggest public attitudes are changing.

It’s March 26, 2011 and 250,000 people have just completed a peaceful march against public sector cuts. It is the largest such protest march in recent history but just down the road there are more than 60 police officers outside Topshop, protecting it from further assault. Oxford Street’s human traffic shuffles casually between the riot shields and the noisy protesters while the actual traffic is at a standstill. Dozens of buses carrying hundreds of frustrated passengers stand idle as riot police charge down the road.

Angry shoppers barge past activists outside Boots. One furious woman shouts “what the hell is this about?” Of course, if she really wants to know all she has to do is stop for a minute and listen to the young man on the loudspeaker. But she doesn’t really want to know, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does either. Other shoppers – their arms laden with bags – step nimbly over abandoned placards and broken glass, barely acknowledging what’s happening around them. Later, police fight pitched battles with protesters in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, and the next day the peaceful march is forgotten.

Fast forward to November 9, 2011 and there is no sign of the ‘black bloc’ as the march winds its way from Malet Street to Moorgate. There was another public sector march in June that passed peacefully and people are hoping today’s will be the same. Nobody wants trouble, not least because, as one student points out, “there are twice as many police as us.” This isn’t strictly an anti-cuts march, of course. It’s a student demonstration largely against tuition fees and it was always anticipated that it would be much smaller than the one in 2010 which was marred by violence.

The march goes mostly as planned. Chaos threatens to ensue when a small group break away from the main demonstration and briefly set up camp in Trafalgar Square. A trio of workmen approach the protesters and tell them, in less than demure terms, to “get a job.” One of the activists explains that he does have a job; he’s self employed but his business is suffering because of the recession and he can’t support the public sector cuts. The workmen hear him out, although they don’t seem entirely convinced. But at least they give him a fair hearing and they seem genuinely interested in what he has to say. When I think back to the events in March this all seems ridiculously civilised. But things have changed since then.

Not only is today’s march much calmer than some of those in the recent past, there seems to be a much greater level of public support, or at least interest, in what’s going on. Back in the spring the general public’s attitude to the anti-cuts protest varied from hostility to indifference. But that little exchange in Trafalgar Square, and the many similar debates that take place daily at the camp outside St. Paul’s, suggests the public has become more sympathetic towards the anti-cuts activists.

Back in March people didn’t want to know, and they didn’t seem to care. But they do now. Perhaps the cuts are beginning to bite. Maybe the summer riots have roused people from their slumber. Maybe it has something to do with the protest camp outside St. Paul’s.

In pubs, at work, and in the streets people are debating the merits of public sector cuts. They wonder why the recession seems to have hit some people harder than others. They question why state-owned banks continue to pay huge bonuses yet public services are being withdrawn. They want to know when the super-rich will start sharing the burden.  People look at Greece and fear the effects of austerity measures here. They might not always agree with anti-cuts activists, and I’ve seen plenty of vocal disagreement, but they don’t necessarily side with the government either.

Back in Moorgate tensions between police and protesters area alleviated when the latter decide to have a mini-rave instead of a fight. The police shrug their shoulders and look on slightly bemused, probably hoping, as do the protesters here tonight, that the trend towards peaceful protest continues on November 30.

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